Once more unto the beach.
Yes. Another. Cruise. The year of Three Ships concludes with the National Review cruise on the Eurodam, a sister ship to the New Amsterdam, identical in every respect - I was able to find my way to the buffet without a map, and as everyone knows that’s the most crucial path. Yes, yes, lifeboats, I know. As if we’ll need those. Dessert is another matter. When I got out of the midships elevator to head to the buffet - it's Lido deck, past the pool - I remembered that they funneled the traffic into a chokepoint right by the Spa, almost as if they want to make sure you know it's there, and will make an appointment for someone to put hot stones on your back at some point and infuse your soles with mashed lichens, or whatever they do up there. They have to do this. They make their money on this. I'm guessing the ships make a pittance on the rooms, and these enormous half-billion-dollar vessels exist to sell soft drinks, liquor, massages, bingo cards, and slot machines.
The journey to Florida had a barbed thread of anxiety running through the day - I had 24 minutes to connect in Atlanta. The plane was supposed to leave at 11:50. It was late to the gate. I looked at the number of people waiting to board, thought: impossible. When I took my seat I watched people come in with bags and take FOR-FARGIN’-EVER to stow them, and every person who took a minute huffing and puffing as they tried to cram their bag in the compartment meant that the line backed up, and everyone else would need a minute, and every minute took a minute away from the 24 minutes in Atlanta. PEOPLE! MOVE! GO!
When we took off we were exactly 24 minutes late.
Well. Got in a bit early. I checked the gate - of course we landed at D and of course I had to get to C - so I OJ’d my way through the airport (in the old sense of the term, not the modern slasher sense) to the train to the gate, and made it with a few minutes to spare. There’s no feeling quite like the relief of making a close connection when the destination is a vacation. When it’s wheels up you realize: this is actually going to happen.
Stepped outside into a warm Florida evening, found the shuttle to the hotel where everyone stayed last year, tipped the driver, went inside, walked up to the front desk of the Embassy Suites. Gave the clerk my name; she asked me to repeat it, possibly because they were hosting a convention of people who carried on conversations by shouting as loudly as possible - at least you think it’s as loudly as possible until they address their kids, which requires them to summon previously untapped reservoirs of lung-power, as they inform their offspring of the necessity of STOPPIN THAT and GITTIN OVER HERE. Preferably RIGHT NAW. It was the crudest batch of vacationers you can imagine. Underdressed and over-tatted and dripping with chains, the brims of their baseball caps set at the current fashionable angle. The hotel had no reservation. I was almost relieved. Except I had no place to stay now. Here’s the fascinating part: the clerk couldn’t have cared less. At the most I expect a simulacrum of sympathy, but her attitude was simple: ‘s your problem. Please go away now. Whatever led you to believe you had a reservation, and prompted this elaborate theatrical event where you show up in our shuttle with bags and an expectation that you’re in the system, well, it’s not my problem.
At this point I realized I just sorta-kinda assumed we were in the same hotel. Checked my documents: no. A different place. But the hotel was only a half-mile away, so I dragged my grips and trunks to the Renaissance, which was better than the Embassy Suites by a factor of 12,945. The lobby: quiet. The desk clerk: brisk and efficient. The room: spectacular and well-appointed, and because I wasn’t paying for it, there wasn’t that tight cold gut-grip you get when you look around a really, really nice room and think I’d be happy with a cot and a scratchy blanket and two hundred dollars in my pocket.
I went to the lobby bar for supper, found friends new and old, and there was great rejoicing, as they say. The adventure was underway.
I'm on the deck of my veranda now. We’re in port at Ft. Lauderdale, taking on people and provisions. The room is exceptional:
. . . but the interior of the lobby light fixture looks like you're staring down the maw of the Doomsday Machine:
Since I’m traveling alone, it will be spare and squared away at all times. Here’s a measure of how utterly spoiled this year has made me: I am somewhat disappointed that my veranda chairs do not recline.
Our itinerary: the usual Caribbean haunts, I suppose. Including Puerto Rico. Long days in the sun, noisy evenings of talk and cocktails, bonhommie and cigars. In previous trips I could spread this out over four installments. Probably do it in two this time. In fact, what the hell: let’s just put up some pictures of beaches and leave it at this.
-- 2 --
We pulled out after dark, sliding past apartment buildings where people blew vuvuzelas to wish us a safe journey. Or curse us and hope we thundered to the bottom of the ocean; it's not an instrument that conveys nuance. I love the moment when you clear the channel, pass the buoys, and the ship lances into the Vast Beyond. It never pales. Not even when you've just read the memo reminding you that our main communal objective in the next 48 hours is to avoid becoming a plague ship wracked by timber-shivering bouts of intestinal distress. But why worry? Everyone SWORE on the embarkation docs that they didn't have the hectic blurts in the last few days, so we're jake. Adventure ahead! Even better: the complete and total disconnect. I didn't buy any internet. I shut off my phone.
Here now: the library / coffee house on the 11th deck, or "Eleven Forward" as we pathetic Trekkies call it.
Here to escape the sound outside the door of my cabin: the ceaseless incoherent angry roar of the Atlantic as the ship chews its way south. All day. Every moment. The ship is restless and moves up, sideways, down, like a enormous snake trying to slither out of its skin. I usually don’t have a problem with sea sickness, and rather like the motion of the sea, but I woke feeling poorly - a consequence, perhaps, of having gone to bed late feeling quite fine - and spent most of the day as restless and ill at ease as the seas. It was too cool to sit outside, except for the times when the sun would break through, but the few times I ventured to the back to sit out I was nearly picked up and hurled across the deck by the winds. The chairs jumped and clattered; shirts left under shoes slid across the deck; bottles toppled and rolled. The promenade deck is closed to walkers. When they called this a Day At Sea, they weren’t kidding; the main objective seems to be avoiding being a day in the sea as well.
I have a speech to give tonight to a large audience in this room:
. . and feel a bit unhappy about feeling so lousy beforehand. But you hope that you will rally and be buoyed by the fine fellow-feeling that flows off the audience . . . unless I stink. Well, there are others on the panel, so I’m not alone.
Spent the day reading. While it would have been nice to mix and chat and talk, I have to preserve my voice, which I started harshing out last night. There was the first-night mix-and-greet, then the dinner. I am table 309, and will be the official National Review Person at 309 for the entire trip. The view:
. . . after two hours of dinner, the end of the night retreat in the Crow’s Nest, where the best conversations seem to take place. Yammered about this and that - suddenly all the stuff in one’s head, the tired ideas you’ve been dragging around for years, seem just brilliant when you unlock the trunk and drag them out for fresh ears. But it leaves me hoarse. So today I read, and since I’m chewing through my Kindle books, I got a library book on the Cuban Missile Crisis. It's a nail-biter! You just want to rush to the last chapter to see how it ends.
The sad fact is that I miss my family, and since they were here last time and aren’t here now, this seems like so much less fun. And there’s just no way around that. But tomorrow we dock, and there will be something to do, a place to see, a trinket to consider, a break from the long slog and plow of the journey so far.
-- 3 --
Ed Ames is on the ship. Part of our group, in fact. He’s looking good. Very tall. We’ve spoken, but I haven’t mentioned the tomahawk thing. You suspect people might have brought that up over the years.
Yeah, that place! Okay, this should narrow it down:
Interchangeable Caribbean destination #29482035! This place. (15 second clip.)
I was just here, or so it seems. It’s a sliver of ersatz Piratey fun. Faux-ho-ho. You get off the ship and you’re funneled straight into a big Duffy shop with lots of liquor and giant-size cigarette cartons whose health warnings are in 260 pt type. You can also buy a T-shirt that says you set foot on the island temporarily. If you choose there’s a big beach with perfect white sand and palms. I like it here.
How can you not? I mean, I really like it here.
Wandered over, took a chair, finished a book. It’s “In the Garden of the Beasts,” an account of the ambassador to Nazi Germany in 1933. While he was a rather dry sort, the story really has fun with his daughter, to whom I took an instant dislike as great as her own self-regard. Martha Dodd. Had it off with Carl Sandburg as a young lass, then managed the interesting trick of bedding a Soviet agent of the NKVD and the first head of the Gestapo. One of her boyfriends tried to set her up with this little single guy who was the chancellor of Germany, but as her wikipedia entry notes, no affair followed their meeting. Remember: daughter of the American ambassador. The Nazis disappointed her eventually, so she switched sides and passed information to the Soviets. She ended up back in America, married a rich heir to a department store fortune, and they were both good dutiful advocates of the importance of remaking human society, which somehow - gosh knows how - led to being Communist informers. Named in the HUAC contretemps, they did what anyone would do, and fled to Prague, then Moscow, then Cuba. What a madcap, gay lass! Anyway, it was the period of 1933 - 34 the book concerned, and it was interesting. It’s by the same fellow who wrote “Devil in the White City,” but to be honest you wouldn’t know it.
So that’s how I spent the warm day. Had a beer at Jimmy Buffett's chain-restaurant Margaritaville for that totally authentic island experience, then back to the ship. We sailed at 2:30, and the rest of the day was as before: nap, an Americano in Elevent Forward, a stroll, dinner at eight, drinks upstairs with the regulars, just like last year. Just like next year, if all goes well. It's a writer's dream: I'm on a ship heading to a warm place in November with people who read my stuff and like it and are kind enough to tell me how much they like it. Bleat readers, Ricochet listeners, everyone. And all I have to do is talk. I don't even have to be smart. It's enough to talk. Wow. It is the best possible thing in the world. I mean, the first night I put on my suit, did the little "showtime!" gesture to the mirror, took the elevator to the Lido deck, strolled into the pool party, whisked a champagne off the tray and sailed into the gaiety, thinking: this feels somewhat normal.
And then you slap yourself because it's not. It's rare and wonderful and you're lucky.
But if you've taken a cruise, you know: it's normal by Tuesday. It's habit by Wednesday. It's practically the way you've lived all your life by Thursday.
On we go.
TOMORROW: THIS STORY ACTUALLY GETS INTERESTING. Art and birds and small details of an ancient town. Also, lizards.